The Universality and Individualism of Abstraction in Modernist Art


Theodore Adorno once wondered how artists were capable of producing beauty after the atrocities of the Holocaust. Faced with such atrocities, many turn to art for clarity and healing. The rise of Modernism and Abstract Expressionism came out of this need for healing. In an art form that rejected representation and removed itself completely form politics, artists didn’t have to represent the horror of realism. This separation of art and politics is, however, an impossible line to cross. Art is created by human beings who experience life and selfhood as much as the rest of us. Harold Rosenberg defined Abstract Expressionism as “of the same metaphysical substance of the artist’s experience” (Rosenberg 28). Abstract Expressionism is symbolic despite its refusal of figural representation; artwork is created by a person with political and ethical ideals. When we view art as a reaction to the experience of being, it is no longer sacrosanct and instead becomes familiar—even relatable.

Modernist art, specifically visual art and poetry, champion the separation of art and artist by eliminating figural representation in an attempt to speak universally, making the art object personal to and for everyone. Robert Motherwell famously wrote, “all my works consist of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighted colors, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism) resolved into a synthesis which differs the whole from either” (qtd in Sandler 202,206). Motherwell’s use of abstraction is similar to W.H. Auden’s use of abstraction in poetry. In this essay, I will look at Auden’s and Motherwell’s use of abstraction to explore the way both artists distance themselves from their art works in an effort to universalize them, which in turn makes them personal to and for each reader or viewer.


Defining Abstract Expressionism:

The turn toward abstraction in the world of visual art was heavily controversial, many claiming that art without figural representation was “barbaric” (Shapiro 13). However, the elimination of representational figures allowed abstract forms to speak for themselves. Critic Meyer Shapiro said of Abstract Expressionism (from now on referred to as AbEx),

“What was once considered monstrous, now became pure form and pure expression, the esthetic evidence that in art feeling and thought are prior to the represented world. [With the rise of Abstract Expressionism,] The art of the whole world was now available on a single unhistorical and universal plane as a panorama of the formalizing energies of man.” Shapiro 13).

Abstraction removes the viewer from a concrete representational form and forces him to define artwork on its own terms. Because these terms are completely self-referential to the art object alone, they have the potential to be universally understood. Paint is paint, space is space, and gesture is gesture. Shapiro argues that these elements, when put together reveal more of the truth than a concrete representational figure. That is, when we see a woman in a painting, we are likely to associate various cultural norms with her. The woman we see may conjure up ideas about fertility, gentleness, and motherhood. Abstraction, however, forces viewers to confront forms that we can’t associate with anything else. This method both universalizes and intensely personalizes the work since the painting becomes a meditative space for each individual viewer without imposing a cultural context onto that meditation.


Symbol Analysis: Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 70

Working Title/Artist: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70 Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1961 photography by mma 1979/96, transparency #1ad scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 12_02_04

This painting was completed in 1971, though Motherwell began the series in the 1950s. Robert Motherwell’s use of color, space, and gesture cement him in the world of AbEx. While these things can’t necessarily be called symbols, they do symbolize, since the act of abstraction itself is symbolic of the AbEx purpose. Irving Sandler writes of Motherwell’s ambitions,

“Motherwell’s desire for masterliness led him to focus on the aesthetic qualities of painting. But, as he wrote in 1946, ‘in this stage of the creative process, the strictly aesthetic… ceases to be the chief end in view.’ The need was to use the process of painting as the ‘means’ for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception.’” (Sandler 203).

With this in mind, the abstractions in Elegy No. 70 are clearly multi-faceted. Motherwell uses black and white to symbolize an opposition. If a viewer chooses to meditate on the Spanish Civil War, as the artist himself does, this sheds light on the comparison between life and death, democracy and fascism, the individual and the universal. The alternating bars and rounded forms set up a pattern, while the contours and drips negate it, showing the importance of spontaneity in gesturalism. However, there is evidence that “the contours and drips were modulated at the end of the painting process, and it is these areas that carry the most intense expressive content in the compositions” (Fineberg 75). When the convention of the accident becomes a controlled mechanism, the art work becomes a purposefully designed object. This was a common technique in AbEx art, meant to underscore the value of making a gesture (Smith). These gestures, deemed the most “intensely expressive” universalize the object. While “expressive,” the drips themselves don’t stand for a concrete idea. Rather, they come out of emotion, out of some need to act. When asked about theme of the Elegy series, Motherwell remarked, “[it] is the insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot.” (qtd in Fineberg 75). In this case, the Spanish Civil War is Motherwell’s “means for getting at the infinite background of feeling” through paint.


Defining Poetic Abstraction:

W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain” uses symbolism for the same effect. In order to understand Auden use of symbolism, we must first define it in the context of poetic abstraction. A symbol is “a concrete trope that represents an abstraction,” an abstraction being “a word or verbal construct that represents an idea rather than a thing” (Turco 166, 185). For Auden, it was very important that this nebulous idea come out of a lived experience. During his time at Oxford, Auden volunteered for the Spanish Republic “not only because fighting against Fascism was the moral thing to do but because, in his estimation, genuine experience of the war would help to make him a poet of the highest order” (Grass 88). Poetry relies on communication between speaker and reader, so Auden’s attempt to be a good poet was also his attempt to be a good communicator. Much like Shaprio and the Abstract Expressionists, he believed that the truth of lived experience was important to communication. However, after serving in Spain, Auden wrote to a friend,

It is possible in some periods, the poet can absorb and feel all in the ordinary every day life, perhaps the way supreme masters always can, but for the second order and particularly to-day, what he can write about is what he has experienced through his own person. Academic knowledge is not enough. (qtd in Grass 89).

Based on this statement, it is safe to say that the images and “verbal constructions” in Auden’s “Spain” are abstractions standing for concrete ideas, or symbols.


Symbol Analysis: Auden’s “Spain”

Auden uses a variety of symbols to show the readers his politics, but also to make the poem a coping mechanism for them to use during times of war. The poem begins, “Yesterday all the past” (1).  By using the word “yesterday,” the poem establishes itself in the present. Each individual “yesterday” (which appears whenever the poem is read on a new day), is condensed down to one that encompasses “all the past” (1). The poem is further emphasized by the phrase, “but to-day the struggle” (16). The present tense and the invocation of “to-day” cement the poem in the reader’s present. Since the poem always participates in the present, it is perpetually accessible. “Yesterday all the past” is as meaningful a statement today as it was the day it was written.

Once Auden has established the poem in the present, he plays with the importance of the poem’s political context. During Auden’s present, when the poem was written, Spain was in the midst of the change from democracy to Fascism—this is the inspiration for the poem. The rest of the poem takes on a kind of dual-presence in time, it’s symbolism relating both to the Spanish Civil War specifically and a future (for Auden)/present (for the reader) threat to democracy. In this vein, Auden continues, ”Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,/The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero” (17-18). The reference to Greek and Greek tragedy is a reference to humanist ideals, exemplified by the arts and philosophy of Ancient Greece. When the Spanish Republic was threatened by Fascism, the country’s humanistic values were also threatened. The decay of humanist thought is also a reference to the rising popularity of abstract art, which defied the conventions of classical art. For example, in the Elegy series, Motherwell uses only line, color, and gesture to make a statement about the Spanish Civil War. Compared to the ancient Greeks, who would have made friezes commemorating the war and its important figures, Elegy No. 70 seems completely unrelated.


From here, Auden continues the use of classical symbolism in “Spain,” but for different effects. It reads,

‘O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor.’


And the investigator peers through his instruments

At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus

Or enormous Jupiter finished:

‘But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire.’ (24-28)

The use of the archaic “O,” the sailor (perhaps Odysseus), and Jupiter are all continuations of the reference to Ancient Greek art and poetry. The speaker at this point in the poem is “the poet,” who is surrounded and “startled by the pines” (21). The natural symbolism here is indicative of the Sublime, or confrontation with something divine or more than human. The notion of the sublime was hugely popular in AbEx art, as it could only be described by abstraction. The Sublime can take many forms, but is often associated with natural disasters and human atrocities such as war (Smith). Auden recognizes that the reader may come to the poem as a coping mechanism during wartime, anticipating the reader’s irreconcilable confrontation with the sublimity of war. The poem’s dual-presence makes it self-referential.

“The investigator” in the poem refers both to the reader and to the person who uses art to cope with war. The investigator sees things at both the universal level, symbolized by divine Jupiter, and the individual level, symbolized by the bacterium (Sell 189). This mimics the way Auden wants us to see the poem: as an accessible, universal object, albeit one created by an individual to be used by individuals.

The voice of Life, an abstraction, speaks in a series of concrete metaphors, perpetuating Auden’s use of symbolism. Auden writes,

“…I’m the

Yes man, the bar-companion the easily-duped;

I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be

Good, your humorous story.

I am your business voice. I am your marriage.


What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.

I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic

Death? Very well, I accept, for

I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain. (48-56)

Life/Spain’s response “I am whatever you do” is a statement both about what life is and how we as individuals do things. The “you” in this statement can be either plural and ambiguous, or singular and specific. With the presence of a reader, the voice of life is more direct, saying “I am what you do.” The “suicide pact” represents both the end of the reader’s life and the speaker’s, since the reader brings the speaker to life. The addition of the “romantic death” is reminiscent of the tragic hero in the sixth stanza, which also connects the symbol to the tragic death of democracy at the hand of Fascism. Since Life is characterized by the reader, the poem makes the reader responsible for himself and his beliefs. In Auden’s context, these beliefs precipitate a suicide pact when the reader goes to war for Fascism. In the context of a different presence, the reader could be held accountable for any number of things. In this way the poem creates a space in the reader’s presence for her to meditate on her ideas and their implications. This is another common use of AbEx art, which encouraged viewers to confront the Sublime and other unknowns through abstraction (Smith).


The Abstract Artist’s Goal: Capturing the Noumenal and Phenomenal through Poetry and Paint

One way AbEx artists interacted with the Sublime was through the transition between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds. The noumenal world is the philosophical world in which ideas are born. Ideas in the noumenal world cannot be described, and once they are, they drop to the phenomenal world where they are formally realized. The goal of AbEx, specifically gesturalism, was to track the change from noumenal idea to phenomenal form (Smith). While artists recognized they could never depict the transformation itself–any kind of representation, symbolic or concrete, constitutes a phenomenal idea– they made the transition known through their work. The idea of a noumenal and phenomenal world doesn’t only apply to painting though; Auden takes advantage of them in “Spain.” Though there is no explicit speaker, Life’s narrative continues, “Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever / Are precise and alive” (69). When our thoughts become phenomenal, they gain “bodies,” or vessels through which they act and “shape” the world around us. For the poem, this is a reiteration of the fact that, through a civil war, the Spanish were destroying their own country and culture.

In the poem, the public voice asks for clarification and help, but the voice of Life/Spain reveals that it only does what it is asked, and that therefore, the public brought war upon itself. In the poem, we see the Spanish desire for war, still noumenal between the lines, but changed to phenomenal when realized in writing. Motherwell’s use of gesturalism, for example, reveals the transition of ideas from noumenal (for the viewer who never sees the action, only physical evidence of it and for the artist who has the idea and carries it out) to phenomenal worlds.

In these works, the artists ask readers and viewers to do the same thing. They universalize the work through abstraction, preparing it for the individual’s participation, and, through that participation a noumenal idea is born. This idea reaches phenomenal status when it takes the form of an emotion, description, or memory. When the art object is completely abstract, it is completely universal because it relates only to itself, therefore any reader with access to it can grapple with its meaning.  Since the meaning comes from each reader, the meaning is individualized for each reader. Thus by approaching art through the universal language of abstraction, Auden and Motherwell make art available to each person who comes to it on an individual level.


Works Cited:

Auden, W.H. “Spain” W.H. Auden Selected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson, Vintage International Press, 2007. Print.

Fineberg, Jonathan. “Robert Motherwell” from Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2011. Print. 71-77.

Grass, Sean C. “W.H. Auden, from Spain to “Oxford.”” South Atlantic Review. South Atlantic Review, 66.1. Print. 84-101.

Motherwell, Robert. Elegy for the Spanish Republic No. 70. 1961. Oil on canvas.

Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” The Tradition of the New. New York: Horizon, 1959. 23-39. Print.

Sandler, Irving. “Robert Motherwell.” The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. Praeger Publishers: New York City, New York. 1970. Print. 201-210.

Sell, Roger, D. Literary Community Making: The Dialogicality of English Texts from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. John Benjamins Publishing, 2012. Print. 189.

Shapiro, Meyer. “Nature of Abstract Art.” Marxist Quarterly 1, no. 1. January-March 1937. Print. 77-98.

Smith, Shaw C. “Abstract Expressionism”. ART 219: Contemporary Art. Davidson College, 16 September 2016, Seamans Lecture Hall, Katherine and John Belk Visual Arts Center, Davidson, NC. Lecture.

Turco, Lewis. The Book of Literary Terms: The Genres of Fiction, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism, and Scholarship. UPNE, 1999. Print.

Thanks you, Hollins, Sarah, Megan, Katie, and Dr. Churchill for your insightful comments! I really appreciate the time you all took to comment on my work and brainstorm new ideas and methods for this essay. A special thanks, also, to my roommate Anitta Machanickal for letting me read this to her twice!!

Pledged, IJS

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